It’s easy to sit back and call sprinter Jeneba Tarmoh a quitter. It’s easy to criticize her for withdrawing from a runoff that would have broken an alleged tie and determined whether she or Allyson Felix had earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team in the 100 meters. As many armchair critics were quick to point out following the decision, racers race. That’s what they do. And to back out of a race is poor form.
Unfortunately, that assessment is grossly inadequate.
USA Track and Field (USATF) butchered this race.
If we were talking about a more popular sport there would be enough outrage and recriminations to fuel months of media fire. But track and field is a marginal sport in this country, and as a result, this outcome will be forgotten soon enough. Everything will be swept under the rug. Few will care that an Olympic dream was crushed by the careless machinations of a governing body that failed in multiple ways.
At that heart of this case is a tie. One of the simplest endings in sport. After all, in any contest there are really only three possible conclusions: win, lose, or draw. That USATF was completely unprepared to adjudicate a tie isn’t just unforgivable, it’s incomprehensible. How, in this day and age, could there be no set procedure in place to determine a winner?
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the 100 meter final where everything went wrong in the first place.
In that race, Carmelita Jeter took the top spot with a time of 10.92 seconds. Tianna Madison was second at 10.96. Tarmoh and Felix had a photo-finish in the third-place spot. The top three runners qualified for the Olympics. Immediately after the race ended, Tarmoh was declared the winner. Times were posted on the stadium scoreboard and were reported by various media outlets:
1 Carmelita Jeter, 10.92
2 Tianna Madison, 10.96
3 Jeneba Tarmoh, 11.07 [11.068]
4 Allyson Felix, 11.07 [11.069]
5 Bianca Knight, 11.14
6 Lauryn Williams, 11.18
7 English Gardner, 11.28
8 Alexandria Anderson, 11.37
Roger Jennings, the USATF judge on the scene, was responsible for reviewing the photo-finish. By a thousandth of a second, Tarmoh was the third-place finisher. She was handed a flag. She took a victory lap around the stadium. She attended the medal ceremony and was awarded a medal. She was included in the winners’ press conference. By all immediate counts, this race was over.
Then, as the New York Times puts it, “Upon further review, the race was deemed a dead heat — a result for which USA Track and Field, the sport’s governing body, had no clear protocol.”
There are three crucial problems in play. The first is that USATF failed to act at the time of the finish. If there is to be a review, it should be done before any result is announced. Questionable calls in virtually every other sport are handled at the time of the call.
The aftermath of the 100 meters didn’t just happen. USATF acted. Someone gave Tarmoh that flag. Everyone watched as she took her victory lap. A medal was placed around her neck. She was included in the press conference. These were all planned, considered actions.
If the result of the race was unclear, why did USATF proceed? How can it justify allowing Tarmoh to think she earned an Olympic berth only to come back hours later with a changed result?
Imagine for a moment that Roger Federer wins Wimbledon only to be told hours later that a ball landed out of bounds. Come on back, Roger. You have to replay the final set.
Imagine for a moment that Tiger Woods captured the British Open and hoisted the Claret Jug. The next morning the USGA decides that he grounded his club in a bunker on the 15th hole. Sorry Tiger, now you’re in a playoff.
Imagine the Giants won the Superbowl only to receive a lockerroom missive claiming that Eli was down by contact on that last pass attempt. Let’s replay the fourth quarter, boys.
Such situations are laughable. They would never happen. First because sports don’t work that way, and second because no one would stand for it.
The second problem with the USATF decision is that it acted despite the total absence of any kind of plan. It overturned a result hours after the fact and yet had no clear way of resolving the tie. It’s bad enough to undo the finish of a race by claiming a dead heat that wasn’t previously there, but to do so without a way to determine a winner is flat out stupid. Ultimately, the USATF abdicated its own responsibility and put the onus on the runners to decide how things would shake out.
In a twisted version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, Tarmoh and Felix were told to fix the massive screw-up. If they both chose the same option– either a coin toss or a runoff race– then that choice would ensue. If they disagreed, the coin toss took precedence.
To call this move bush league would be an insult to that term. It was up to USATF to repair the damage here, not the runners. Remember that the USATF’s own actions had created fiasco. Now the group was acting yet again, shirking its duties as a governing body in a very public and deplorable manner.
This brings us to the third problem, which was that the runoff was to be held roughly 24 hours after the original race. Before the runoff could happen, both sprinters had to compete in the 200 meters. With all of this hanging over her head, with all of the emotional turmoil, Tarmoh somehow had to go out there and run an Olympic-quality race in a different event. Are we to pretend that’s fair? Being put in that position?
Both sprinters had pushed their bodies to the limits throughout the Olympic Trials. Neither was in condition to run an addition race at all, much less so soon. Remember that the provision for a runoff didn’t even exist. It’s not as if Felix and Tarmoh could have prepared themselves for such a possibility.
Again from the New York Times, “Bobby Kersee, who coaches both runners, had expressed dismay with the rules created to break the tie and had raised concerns about the runners being fatigued heading into a runoff race.”
Track and Field is a precision sport. There are real consequences to not being ready to run. A pulled hamstring or a turned ankle would mean no Olympics at all. To expect Tarmoh and Felix to gear up and run the race of their lives on a day’s notice was completely unreasonable.
Collectively, this sequence of events was one of the most shameful displays of mismanagement ever witness in sport. And yet throughout the ordeal, USATF continually scapegoated the athletes. Failing to administer a proper review then forcing them to decide their own fate was bad enough, but USATF also explicity blamed Tarmoh for the fallout.
“‘There are procedures in place to protest [the outcome], and she [Tarmoh] did not do that in the allotted time period,’ Stephanie Hightower, the president of USA Track and Field, said in a telephone interview Monday.”
That’s one way to look at it. Instead of admitting that her organization caused this trouble in the first place, Hightower pointed the finger at Tarmoh’s lack of administrative reaction. But what she conveniently omitted was the fact that Tarmoh had already won. Tarmoh had 30 minutes to protest the ruling of a dead heat; 30 minutes to react to the biggest shock of her life, going from Olympian to “tied” despite all the pomp and circumstance.
Yes, Tarmoh probably should have protested. And yes, once the runners were locked into USATF’s idiotic solution she probably should have participated in the runoff instead of backing down. But as her college coach Vince Anderson said,
“There’s a lot of downside to running off. She has the most to lose, since she was declared third, and she just wants to stand up for herself and what she thinks is right.”
Her high school coach Steve Nelson added, “By running the race, she acknowledges there was a tie. At this point, she’s on the relay team, and my sense is she’s mentally and physically exhausted after having to deal with this matter…But I don’t think she’s not running out of protest; I think she feels she won it already.”
But perhaps the very worst aspect of this debacle was the blatant greed displayed by USATF in the wake of its own failings. Speaking about the runoff that never materialized, Hightower said, “We could have had an epic moment here for the sport. But it didn’t happen.”
This is a disgusting and self-righteous statement. USATF was excited about the ratings that a runoff would generate. It was banking on the interest of having a highly controversial race in the media spotlight. The spin was that this tie-breaker could have brought some much needed public attention to the sport of track and field.
Forget about doing the right thing. Forget about integrity. We could have had ratings.
Don’t blame Tarmoh for withdrawing or refusing to accept an unacceptable outcome. There is, quite simply, no excuse for any of this. No excuse for USATF’s complete failure as a governing body. No excuse for its repulsive dissembling or its thinly-veiled blame game. No excuse for the sloppy after-the-fact review that reversed an “on-field” decision. Is this what defines Olympic competition?